Namaan's No-Nonsense Cure

By Hawkins, Peter S. | The Christian Century, June 20, 2001 | Go to article overview
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Namaan's No-Nonsense Cure

Hawkins, Peter S., The Christian Century

Sunday, July 8 2 Kings 5:1-14

TRADITIONAL CHRISTIAN appropriation of the Hebrew scriptures often flattens them. Stories become precursors of later New Testament events rather than genuine events in themselves. Vivid multidimensional characters become mere prefigurations instead of figures in their own right, and complex narrative situations are reduced to a single theological point. This is due in part to the allegorization of the Hebrew Bible that began with St. Paul and continued to flourish for centuries. For example, every element of the Exodus--the manna in the wilderness, the cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night, the rock which released streams of fresh water--all were commonly interpreted to mean "Christ." Likewise, when Namaan the Syrian emerges from the Jordan cleansed of his leprosy, we are supposed to understand that the river's healing waters really signify grace in general and the sacrament of baptism in particular.

Maybe. But look at what is thereby lost to these narratives--almost everything! The Exodus, given its historic importance and the immensity of its claim upon the imagination, has been able to resist the forces of well-meaning theological reduction. But what about Namaan, a minor figure tucked away in the ancient history of the Northern Kingdom, whose full story occurs but once in the three-year cycle of the lectionary? What chance does he have to survive death by allegory?

Namaan is not only a high-ranking member of the enemy Aramites but also the chief commander of his king's army--the army that brought down King Ahab with a well-placed arrow. When that conflict ends, Namaan is left with increased grandeur and the booty of war, including "a young girl captive from the land of Israel." But that is not all: he also has been struck by leprosy.

Remedy comes from an unlikely source. The Hebrew slave girl tells her mistress about Elisha, the wonder-working prophet of the Lord. Wife speaks to husband, and husband goes to his king, who writes a letter to his Hebrew enemy about his beloved commander: "Please, cure my servant Namaan." The situation is bizarre: a hostile pagan king asks an impossible favor for his generalissimo, thereby setting the stage for disappointment and what might well be the next political disaster: "Just look," says the king of Israel, "and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me."

When a king balks, the prophet of the Lord rushes in. Elisha tells Namaan to come, and when he comes, it is with all the Aramean horses and chariots that have otherwise been deployed so bloodily on the battlefield. Elisha stays indoors while a messenger delivers the holy man's words for him: All Namaan need do for this leprosy is wash seven times in the river Jordan. That is all. Perhaps contrary to Elisha's expectations--Namaan did want to be healed, didn't he?

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